For a while there, Maura O'Connell's website brandished the subtitle "Just a Singer," but that ironic tag has evolved into an ever-changing set of comments from the cheeky (and accurate) "Just a Wonder" to the very sensible, lower-key suggestion that we "Just Listen."
From her first recorded appearance as a lead vocalist with the celebrated traditional Celtic group DeDanaan in 1981, to her tenth and latest solo disc, Don't I Know, O'Connell has married an unmistakable deep, rich, flexible voice and her signature talent for finding what's most potent in the work of a select but broad array of genre-jumping songwriters, to pull the listener right along with her--to the heart of a song.
Don't I Know, produced by her long-time collaborator, the dobro master Jerry Douglas, may be the most eclectic O'Connell collection yet, as it ventures from a contemplative turn on rising new singer-songwriter Mindy Smith's "Goin' Down in Flames" to a surprising, surging rock take on Nashville hit-maker Hillary Lindsey's "Spinning Wheel."
"This one does mark another transition," O'Connell says of her second Sugar Hill release, the follow-up to 2001's Walls and Windows. "I wanted to develop the area of singing harder, a little edgier, and with guitars. Still,for me, the song is always the main deal--rather than the style."
If the songs Maura O'Connell renders so affectingly vary across genres, from occasional tones of old Ireland to sparkling new jazz or pop, from revisited classics by Van Morrison or Lennon and McCartney to songs of new American songwriters unheard till she's found them, there is at least one recognizable pattern in most all of them -- lyrics that set the stage for the song, laying down a context, in surroundings, or mood, or the passing of time, then home in on a very specific vignette of love and life. (The title of one of the new songs "Love You in the Middle," pretty much nails the theme.)
O'Connell inhabits the song's situation; seeing the songs as drama, has led her repeatedly to certain writers, such as Patty Griffin, precisely because of their "ability to create characters" in swift strokes.
So maybe it's no surprise that Martin Scorsese cast Maura, scruffed up for the role, as an Irish migrant street singer in his recent 19th century epic The Gangs of New York. It's less known that the marriage of music and narrative was part of O'Connell's world almost from the beginning.
Born and raised in County Clare, Ireland, she was the third of four singing sisters, but it wasn't ancient Celt folk tunes in which that household was drenched--but their singing mother's collection of light opera, opera, and parlor song records.
"I'm sure that those have something to do with how I approach singing," O'Connell says now. "I was aware of singing as an art form in itself." With that awareness, and her focus on singing, she has always been most interested in tunes "that haven't been performed by other people." That was a key reason her first public role as lead singer with the tradition-oriented DeDannan never felt entirely comfortable, and the reason why, in the midst of that folk success, she was so attracted to the experimental roots music of America's New Grass Revival when the bands' paths crossed.
"They were instrumentalists who were not bound by the history of their instruments, from a generation who grew up listening to bluegrass, and the Beatles, and jazz. They brought all of that along, and pushed the envelope really far. There was an exciting feeling of creativity there--and a complete disregard for what anyone thought!"
She would follow that sound to America--and to Nashville, Tennessee. Newgrass masters such as banjoist Bela Fleck and Jerry Douglas (who's appeared on all of O'Connell's discs but one) and a floating contingent of adventurous Nashville hands have provided back-up and production for most of her recorded work--including the Grammy-nominated Helpless Heart and Blue is the Color of Hope for Warner Brothers, Stories and the Irish-oriented Wandering Home for Hannibal/Rykodisc, and the two Sugar Hill discs. The very flexible--and ace--Bryan Sutton and Jonathan Trebing (on acoustic and electric guitars), Viktor Krauss (on bass) and Shannon Forest (on drums) are the core backing band on Don't I Know--with musical textures added by everything from fiddles, to clavinets, to lap steel and B-3 organ.
If today her songs are often from the pens of unclassifiable Nashville mavericks--Jim Lauderdale, Kim Richey and Tim O'Brien are three on the new one--it's only natural; O'Connell has made her home in Music City U.S.A. for some 18 years now. "I'm a product of my environment, I suppose; when I was in Ireland, I knew many people from that scene; most of the songs I hear now, I hear here! People here know what I'm like;I've kind of grown up, and my point of view has changed, with life circumstances much different now than they were when I recorded my first album in '83. Changes have come, people have died, which happens as you get older. In fact, I'm looking forward to going out with the new songs on this record. I don't get out as much, since I've had a son--who's just turned eight."
There's a sense of the passing of time and the losses that come along with it in Maura's music now--and certainly, a higher percentage of tunes that look at the perplexities of life. But even that tone sends her back to the song as song. "Songwriters become more lyrical and poetic, more ruminative, and more in touch with the world's soul, when they're nice and depressed and pondering about it, O'Connell laughs.
If her broad musical interests have been essentially consistent over the 20-plus years of her recording career, the more mature Maura O'Connell is also sounding more self-assured than ever before, utterly ready to take us on that voyage to the center of the song one more time.
And by now, we're assured that she'll get us there. Just listen.